Creating Educational and Transformational Travel Experiences in the Japanese Countryside
Growing Up with Cultural Diversity
I feel incredibly grateful to have been born in my home country, Canada. I was raised by my parents who immigrated from Japan and Hong Kong to Toronto, and later Vancouver. This unique multicultural landscape in my home was only a fragment of the cultural diversity I experienced in my school and around me while I was growing up.
To be invited into my friends’ homes as a child was, in a way, my first form of travel. I found joy in discovering new foods at their dining tables, observing rituals and the practice of various religions, and hearing languages other than English or my parent's native languages. Every house in the suburbs looked identical from the outside, but on the inside, the walls spoke stories. Homes were decorated with photos, art, craft, and memories from places far away. I didn’t have the words to articulate it then, but what I was yearning for was a deeper and more immersive lived experience of the cultures I was seeing fragments of.
Exploring Different Ways of Knowing
I think those early memories were the starting point of my interest in travel and tourism; but I, like many others, attribute the most important turning points in my life to education. When I was completing my bachelor’s degree in Canada, I had the opportunity to meet Zita Cobbs, Founder and CEO of Shorefast and Innkeeper of the Fogo Island Inn. Zita Cobb shared her deep belief in the inherent value of place and her profound respect for the human ways of knowing that emerge from respectful relationships with nature. She spoke about the importance of creating culturally-rich and community-owned economic assets for the long-term social and economic resiliency of Fogo Island.
Zita Cobbs explained, "tourism brings awareness to cultures that have been left behind. Often these are places where people have a particular and profound engagement with the natural world, bringing with it very specific ways of knowing. Tourism is a way for all of us to learn from these people, and preserve the ways of knowing for the good of all humanity."
Meeting Cobbs led me to pursue further education in sustainability and tourism management. I moved to Europe to study in the European Master in Tourism Management (EMTM) program. This program was unique because of a mobility scheme that allowed me to study in three countries (Demark, Slovenia, and Spain) over the course of two years. I felt that I had truly acquired an integrated knowledge of the tourism industry. It was a privilege to have such a diverse cohort of students open my mind and heart to different corners of the world.
After various career experiences in related fields, including communications-related work with the European Union and fundraising in Bangladesh with the Asian University of Women, I have returned to my passion for working in the spheres of education, sustainability and tourism.
Finding New Ways of Being and Engaging with the World
Nestled amongst the cedar forested mountains, I am currently based in Kamikatsu, the smallest village on Shikoku Island in Japan, with a population of approximately 1,400 people and listed as one of Japan’s 100 Most Beautiful Villages.
Kamikatsu is known for being Japan’s first town to declare “Zero Waste” with an aim to recycle 100% of the waste generated within the village. The intensive recycling system asks residents to separate waste into 45 different categories. This unique reputation draws interest from guests from across Japan and all around the world.
I was drawn to Kamikatsu because of the environmental initiatives and I wanted to learn more. I quickly realized that as a tourist it’s hard to understand the zero waste system and it’s nearly impossible to see how community efforts are being carried out.
To bridge this knowledge gap for guests who wanted to learn about Kamikatsu, I co-founded the INOW program in 2020. Opening in the midst of the global pandemic, I could see a unique opportunity to prepare for and provide a tourism experience that focused on slower and more immersive travel. It’s not a set program where each guest will have the same experience; rather the program is about inviting visitors in by saying, “Here’s our lives, please come and join us.”
When I first began this journey of creating the INOW program, our team was really inspired by the concept of “transformational travel”, which is defined by the Transformational Travel Council as “intentionally travelling to stretch, learn, and grow into new ways of being and engaging with the world.”
I wanted INOW to be a program that could facilitate such personal transformations. Through living and eating locally, against a backdrop of magnificent nature, our hope was to guide an experience that allowed each guest to take time to reflect mindfully on what it is in life they really need. Starting the INOW program gave me this unique opportunity to combine education, sustainability, community development, and tourism.
The Future of Travel
I recognize that traditional travel has been changing for many years and our values around tourism will continue to evolve. Starting the INOW program during the COVID-19 crisis allowed our team to gain valuable perspectives that we would not have learned had we started before the pandemic. I understand our guests’ need for social interaction and a heightened awareness of environmental issues.
INOW: Your Home in Kamikatsu
I think that the INOW program can evolve to be more steadfast with our climate commitments, which could include broadening our educational activities to cater to a wider range of guests and offering tangible solutions that significantly reduce each guest’s carbon footprint.
I want to continue to be an ambassador for responsible tourism and a leader who promotes cultural diversity. For me, tourism is about building relationships, nurturing a sense of community in a place, and creating value for people through experiences. I’m grateful to be doing what I truly love in Kamikatsu and I hope to continue deepening and enriching my sustainability journey alongside my guests.
Kana is the Co-founder and Director of INOW, an educational tourism programme based in Kamikatsu, the first “Zero Waste Village” in Japan, and a member of the Zero Waste Academy. In 2021, she was selected as an Emerging Climate Leader Asia-Pacific through the ProSPER.Net Leadership Programme hosted by UN University - Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability and Social Innovation Japan. Kana cares deeply about climate action, sustainable tourism, and education.